Tillerson's Mideast Agenda Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a diplomatic push in the Mideast to help Syria and Iraq rebuild after what the Trump administration says are major victories over ISIS.
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Tillerson's Mideast Agenda

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Tillerson's Mideast Agenda

Tillerson's Mideast Agenda

Tillerson's Mideast Agenda

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a diplomatic push in the Mideast to help Syria and Iraq rebuild after what the Trump administration says are major victories over ISIS.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

The Trump administration is touting big victories over ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But now, the big question is, what's next? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making a diplomatic push to help Syrians and Iraqis rebuild. Those were some of the topics in his meetings in Saudi Arabia and Qatar today. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about this. Hello, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi. Nice to be here.

SINGH: What's Secretary Tillerson hoping Saudi Arabia's role will be toward rebuilding?

KELEMEN: Mainly, to help fund the reconstruction, help Iraq's economy get back on its feet. But, you know, relations have been strained between the Saudis and the Iraqis since the Gulf War. And especially in recent years, the Saudis have seen Iraq as being too close to Iran, which is Saudi Arabia's main rival in the region. So today, in Riyadh, what we saw was Tillerson taking part in the first meeting of this Saudi-Iraq cooperation council. King Salman was there. Iraq's prime minister was there. And Tillerson was trying to really encourage them to build on this.

SINGH: How much of this is about countering Iran, though?

KELEMEN: A lot of it. The secretary said he wants Iraq to be able to stand on its own, and that if it's able to, that this would counter what he called Iran's unproductive influences in Iraq. Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: Certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq - now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close - those militias need to go home. Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home.

KELEMEN: So that was a very clear message to the Iranians. We'll see if anything comes about of that, though.

SINGH: Michel, earlier this year, the Saudis broke ties with Qatar, where you are now. Is Secretary Tillerson making any headway on resolving that?

KELEMEN: It doesn't really sound like it. He was asked this evening at a news conference here in Doha, and he says that he raised this with the Saudis, who have led the blockade against Qatar. Here he is again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TILLERSON: In my meetings with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, I asked him to please engage - please engage in dialogue. There's not a strong indication that parties are ready to talk yet. And so we cannot force talks on people who are not ready to talk.

KELEMEN: And, Lakshmi, you know, this has been going on for some months now. Tillerson says it's hurting economies in the region, and it's benefiting, again, Iran. For instance, he points out that Qatari airlines are now flying over Iranian airspace, and they have to pay fees to Iran for that.

SINGH: In the past week, the U.S. said that ISIS had been pushed out of the capital of its so-called caliphate. That's the Syrian city of Raqqa. Is that on Tillerson's agenda?

KELEMEN: It definitely is. We're expecting to hear more about that later in the week when he stops in Geneva to meet the U.N. envoy on Syria. Again, this is a really complex issue. Iran and Russia are backing Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria. The U.S. is still calling for some kind of political transition. And the fighters that have helped the U.S. clear ISIS out of Raqqa oppose the Assad regime, so it's going to be very difficult managing this.

SINGH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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